Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A New Preserve to Explore

A sweeping view of hayfields at the ChesLen Preserve
On the Sunday afternoon before Memorial Day (May 26), Kali and I took advantage of the unusually clear, cool day to visit the relatively new 1,300-acre ChesLen Preserve located in central Chester County, Pennsylvania's "horse country."  ChesLen (so named because it is located in CHESter County and was donated by a philanthropist whose surname begins with LEN) encompasses fields, woodlands, wetlands, stream valleys, and a small section of a rare plant community that developed on soils underlain by serpentinite, an unusual rock formed under the ocean and that contains near-toxic levels of chromium and other metals.

We parked in a small lot near the southern end of the preserve and began our 3-mile loop walk by entering fields that gradually transitioned into woodlands.  The woods, relatively young second-growth forest full of the invasive plants that typify all second-growth woods in the northern Piedmont, offered pleasant walking.  While the preserve's excellent trail map only showed one trail threading through the woods, Kali and I found ourselves wandering on what was actually a spiderweb of trails throughout the forest.  We finally descended straight downhill on one of the paths to reach a pleasant, wooded tributary of the West Branch of Brandywine Creek.

Brandywine Creek tributary
Polywogs in a placid channel alongside the main stream
Directly across the stream we happened upon a scenic old fieldstone culvert bearing a trail (probably the remnants of an old farm road) over a rivulet.

Fieldstone culvert
After we crossed the stream, we walked through riparian woodlands for a short distance, then ascended the other side of the stream valley through expansive, open grasslands.  With clear, blue skies, a cool breeze, and expansive views, it was glorious; we felt like breaking into a song from the Sound of Music.

Kali ascending the hill through grasslands
Prior to becoming a preserve owned by the regional Natural Lands Trust (NLT) conservancy, ChesLen had been a private working farm.  To maintain the fields and prevent invasion by the non-native pasture-snatchers (e.g., multiflora rose, autumn olive, honeysuckle), NLT plans to continue to manage the fields through agricultural leases for the foreseeable future.

Because CheLen will become one of the NLT's signature preserves (both for its size and the diversity of habitats it protects), the conservancy recently completed a new visitor contact/public events/land stewardship center on a knoll overlooking the fields.  It's a classy facility reflective of the importance of the preserve.  The new facility will be dedicated in June.

New visitor contact/public events/stewardship center
A bit "raw," but impressive nonetheless
After a close-up visit to the new facility, Kali and I continued our walk through more meadows full of buttercups (Ranunculus spp.)

Buttercups along the trail
Fleabane (Erigeron spp.) hosting two native bees
The trail finally turned away from the fields and entered the valley created by the rivulet we saw flowing under the fieldstone bridge earlier in our walk.  We quickly found ourselves back at the stream we had crossed earlier.  We crossed the stream and re-entered the woods where we had lost our way at the beginning of the hike, finally finding the elusive trail junction where we should have turned.

May-apple (Podophyllum peltatum) with fruit on the streambank
Kali picking her way across the stream on natural stepping stones
ChesLen is a nice place, even if the vast majority of it is still devoted to active agriculture.  Our walk only covered a very small part of the trail system and there's plenty of interesting habitat to explore.  I just wish it weren't such a long drive (1.25 hours) from home.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Chip Off the Old Block

(I wonder to what that old expression in my title refers...)

Last week, as I was going to open the gate of the preserve early in the morning, I saw an object about an inch long laying on the driveway.  Not recognizing what it was, I picked it up to examine it, and it turned out to be the cone of one of the conifers lining that part of the drive.  Or was it...?

At first, I thought it was just a tiny, immature cone that would have grown much larger if it hadn't been snipped from a branch by a squirrel or rambunctious crow.  In any case, I brought it in the house and set it aside.

Over a period of a few days, it ripened and revealed itself - not as an embryonic pineapple - but as a male cone that would never have grown any larger.  Instead, the tiny cone on my kitchen counter-top was surrounded by drifts of yellow pollen.  You can bet I cleaned it up carefully.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Burst of Spring

Last Sunday (May 5) was my birthday; let's just leave it at that.  Kali said that she hadn't planned anything special for me, so she said I could choose the venue for a hike.  Though it's hardly a hike (the paths total only 1.2 miles), I chose to go to Jenkins Arboretum to enjoy the splendor of spring.  The arboretum is renown for its impressive collection of azaleas and rhododendrons (mostly non-natives), but the masses of flowering shrubs are overwhelmingly beautiful nonetheless, so we visit in early May each spring.

Along one of the paths
The arboretum had been a private estate, and its owners had amassed this collection over many years.  Now, the site is managed by a non-profit organization.  The organization has built a beautiful, soaring visitor center with meeting rooms and administrative offices, but the real treats can be found along the paths.

Cloudless canopy
The arboretum continues its commitment to azaleas and rhododendrons, adding new varieties every year, but it also focuses on native wildflowers and showy flowering plants from the northern Piedmont.  The paths are lined with native spring ephemerals and ground covers.

White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)
Unfurling fronds
A study in orange and magenta
In a shaft of sunlight

A small stream flows along the western edge of the arboretum.  The heavily shaded hillside above the rill is dedicated to deep woods, moisture loving wildflowers and ferns.

Kali and the birthday boy
The arboretum encompasses 17 acres.  It is completely surrounded by deer (and neighbor)-proof fencing.  As Kali and I walked the paths, I only noticed one tiny patch of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), an invasive non-native plant - no other weed anywhere!  As we were leaving, I approached an employee who was directing traffic in the parking lot to ask him a few questions.  He was the chief propagator for the arboretum.  I asked him if the garlic mustard had been left along the path on purpose for aesthetic reasons.  He said, no, that he was aware of its exact location, but that the staff just hadn't had time to remove it yet.  I also asked him about the size of the horticultural staff, to which he replied that there were three full-time gardeners working on the property, and that he spent some time in the gardens, too.  Let's see...the arboretum has 3-1/2 employees to take care of 17 acres, and I have 4 stewardship employees to take care of 810 acres in my preserve.  Hmmm...

Oh, and did I mention that this wonderland is open to the public without charge?

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Wooly Saturday

I can sympathize
When Kali informed me that we were going to the 40th Annual Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival with two of her colleagues, I decided I'd rather go to the dentist.  (Kali's a fiber artist - especially a weaver and quilter - in her spare time, but because these activities are so time consuming she hasn't woven anything in years, so I questioned the need to spend a sunny spring Saturday perusing yarn she'll never get around to using.)  Also, the festival was at the Howard County Fairgrounds west of Baltimore, a 2-3/4-hour drive each way.  But, being a devoted husband (and owing Kali several favors), I went along grudgingly.

Grooming in preparation for showing - and not too happy about it
The festival bills itself as the largest such festival in the world.  While that might be debatable (there are similar festivals in Rhinebeck, New York, each fall, as Kali's colleagues will attest), what was indisputable was that the place was packed.  And, who knew that there were so many itinerant yarn and wool retailers in the entire world, each of whose booths looked exactly like the booth of the adjacent retailers?

The festival featured wool craft demonstrations (e.g., spinning, weaving, felting - felting's really "big" right now), sheep judging, sheepdog shepherding demonstrations, sheep shearing contests, sheep's milk and goat's milk cheeses and soaps and, of course, lots of grilled lamb - plus all the carnival standards like greasy, Cheese-Whiz larded French fries, Sno-Cones, and hot dogs.

But, the festival also featured lots and lots of sheep of every breed and description.  I was in a pretty sour mood all morning, but once we went into the barns and started looking over the animals, my mood improved significantly and by late afternoon, I was actually enjoying myself.

Jacob sheep (that looked more like goats to me)
The absolute best part of the day was a small moment when I had an opportunity to sink my hand deeply into the incredibly dense, thick wool of a ewe that had yet to be shorn.  It felt like I was immersing my hand into a thick, warm pudding.  When I withdrew my hand, it was coated with greasy lanolin.  Boy, am I a city rube or what?

Sheepdog herding demonstration
Another great moment:  I was astonished at the poses assumed by the sheepdogs.  Though they're thoroughly trained and would never hurt the sheep, when the dogs were moving the sheep around the ring and through challenges, they assumed the pose everyone associates with a wolf about to attack - low on the front legs, ears back, and ready to pounce.  I'd be intimidated and terrified if I were a sheep.

Kali petting a recently shorn alpaca
The shorn alpacas looked like aliens with their huge, unshorn heads and skinny bodies
Kali bought a felting kit and two skeins of wool rovings (carded and dyed wool ready to be spun into yarn or used for felting - a new word for me) and two cones of yarn for weaving.  We also bought a half-gallon of Massachusetts maple syrup (a great price) and two puppets (a Wild Turkey [because we collect all things turkey] and a goat [to attract attention at my preserve's public programs related to invasive plant management]).